Artist DALeast on Sūtra Illustration

Meet Chinese artist DALeast, illustrator for Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s commentary on the Teaching of Vimalakīrti, and learn about his interest in street artistry, why he doesn’t necessarily like the term, and how this particular art form lends itself to the Buddhist practice of non-attachment. Suggesting that the illustrations don’t immediately “look like one person’s work,” DALeast shares how drawing for the text got him out of his comfort zone and was a teaching in itself.

Watch the video here or read the transcript below:


Artist DALeast Speaks about Illustrating for Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s Commentary to the Teaching of Vimalakīrti. Videography by James Gritz.
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84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha: DALeast, can you tell us a little bit about yourself? A bit about your background and your upbringing?

DALeast: I was born in China. I think when I first started to make drawings it was when I was three or two years old. Since then, I guess, I started to feel that it should be part of my life; it’s something that I really enjoyed doing. So when I was growing up I kept on doing that, so it became a habit. And I studied different media — the traditional Chinese medium and the Western medium. I also studied sculpture and fine art. But still now I am looking for a way to express myself in a more interesting way.

84000: You have been referred to as one of the greatest street artists of our time. Would you care to comment on this and maybe explain to us what it exactly means to be a street artist?

DALeast: I am not sure if I am one of the great street artists, as you mentioned, but I do feel I did a lot of work in the past six, seven years. I feel street art has more become like a a trend or like a movement for people to talk about. But for me, I never want to label myself as a “street artist” because for me the street is just a location; it’s a place for me to put out my work, to express myself. When people ask me, “How do you feel about being a street artist?” I always say, “Oh, what if I painted at home? Would you call me a home artist?” So, for me, “street” may be more like a studio, I’d say.

I would like to try different media, different ways to express myself. But for now, I spend a lot of time in the public space because there are so many people there, so you can have more interaction, more of an audience to see what you want to express. It’s really interesting because, also, on the street, there are so many uncertainties you have to face, too. You don’t know if you can finish the work because there are so many things that happen that are out of your control; there are so many unknowns. So it’s quite an interesting way to work.

Also for me I feel “street” means space. So we now have two streets — let’s say public space is one street. So one public space is the physical public space, out there; another one is the internet. It’s really interesting to see how these two spaces can carry your work. That’s what I am interested in. Like when people walk around, they take photos when they see the work in the physical street and then they post on their social media — that’s another street, that’s another public space. So these two together create a new phenomena that people call so-called “street art,” I think. But for me, it’s somewhere where I have spent a lot of time.

84000: Does street artistry mean that you are actually painting a public space, like the façade of a building, or that you are painting in front of people in a public space?

DALeast: Both. Yeah, so there’s a process involved. You paint in the public space, and who is going to pass by, you never know; what is going to happen, you never know. And after you’ve finished your work, you really have to let it go, because you may not see it again. And after you’ve spent so much energy and everything, so much time on this giant building, then you may never see it again. Actually most of my works, I never see them again. So it’s a good way of practicing “letting go.” Even though I still feel like sometimes it’s not that easy.

84000: You were commissioned by Dzongzar Khyentse Rinpoche to create the illustration for his latest commentary on the Teaching of Vimalakīrti. Can you tell us a little bit about how that happened?

DALeast: I’ve found that Rinpoche is really advanced in his efforts to get to know new information, new art forms, and new generations — what they’re thinking and what they’re doing. I remember Rinpoche saying that before he knew me, he already knew about public art – about murals, street art, and this new art form out there.

So I guess it’s more interesting for Rinpoche to let an artist who works in a public space transform the work in a book. Because I think that a book is also one kind of a street. When you flip the pages [gestures flipping the pages of a book], it’s like when we walk in the street and we see different information. In this way [gestures opening up a book and flipping the pages], the information “clicks in” through the book.

I think Rinpoche… [smiling] I don’t know why he asked me! I don’t know. Because Rinpoche has so many amazing friends and students who are amazing artists that can make better work than me. But maybe because…yeah…I don’t know why it happened [laughs]. Rinpoche is very kind. He gave me a lot of space to let me just do whatever I think.

For me, I feel it’s more like a learning process to learn the teaching. And it’s really inspiring, the teaching. Yeah, I’m really, really inspired by it. I don’t know if I did a really good job. But for me, personally, I feel more like it broke my patterns — because I have a specific style, actually, out there. But when it came to creating work for this book, for this sūtra, I felt like I shouldn’t keep that quality with me because that’s a limit I have for myself. I might think, “I want people to recognize me,” or like that. I think maybe Rinpoche kind of wanted me to learn that, to break the boundary, maybe. So I tried to use a different way of drawing, painting. So somehow it looks quite random, I know. It doesn’t look like one person’s work [laughs]. I think that’s what I really feel is interesting about what I have done. But I hope the work is not distracting for the readers to receive the teaching, that’s one of the hopes I have! [Laughs]

84000: Have you received any reactions to your work in the Vimalakīrti sūtra?

DALeast: Yeah, I feel like the teaching, the information I got from the teachings, it’s really like taking out the rug from under you. Like Rinpoche always says: “break your reference.” So that’s why I try to follow that teaching. I haven’t heard many people tell me what they think of the illustrations. Yeah…I don’t know. It’s hard to tell. I haven’t heard many comments about it but I hope people enjoy it.

84000: So now that you’ve finished, can you tell us what you are up to now? Do you have anything lined up for the future?

DALeast: Yeah, I still want to try more different things, different kinds of medium, different kinds of ways of doing my art. Also, I hope I really can receive more teaching from Rinpoche — which is inspiring for me as a person, as an artist, as a student. It’s just so precious and I really appreciate the opportunity that I had to learn from this project. I hope I can learn more from him. That’s what I really hope to do in the future.

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